Trial Lawyers Split on Impact of Tobacco Settlement If OK'd

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- U.S. trial lawyers, a group with a multibillion dollar stake in the landmark tobacco settlement, are divided over whether Congress and President Bill Clinton should approve the pact.

Although lawyers who pressed cases on behalf of state attorneys general and private class-action plaintiffs stand to profit from the agreement, the powerful Association of Trial Lawyers of America is opposed, saying the settlement will discourage private lawsuits by making it more difficult to win large damage awards.

"The trial lawyers are in a difficult position," said Samuel Issacharoff, a University of Texas law professor who specializes in legal fees and complex litigation. "On the one hand, some of the most powerful and successful trial lawyers were key actors in getting the settlement." On the other hand, Issacharoff said, other trial lawyers "will lose a major institutional target with a track record of major social harms." How much attorneys with existing cases will earn isn't yet clear. The $368.5 billion settlement doesn't specify a formula for calculating fees, either for the lawyers working for state attorneys general or for those whose private class-action suits were rolled into the nationwide settlement. Tobacco companies and lawyers will fight out the fee issue, most likely through binding arbitration with the possibility of judicial appeal, after Congress and the president finish reviewing the agreement. The size of the settlement ensures that the payment will set records, even if it doesn't approach the 15 percent to 25 percent contingency fees some state attorneys general originally agreed to pay their lawyers if the cases went to trial. Regardless of how much those lawyers eventually reap, others who aren't involved in the settlement say they're being left out. Although the settlement doesn't ban future lawsuits, it limits them by barring class-action suits and punitive damages for past wrongdoing. The settlement "in effect gives immunity to the tobacco companies from future litigation," said Howard Twiggs, president of ATLA, the trial lawyers group. …